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Proponents pressure Specter on I-80 tolls

SEPTA, local labor leaders, and other proponents of I-80 tolls are putting Sen. Arlen Specter (D., Pa.) in the hot seat, demanding that he push Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to approve the tolls.

SEPTA, local labor leaders, and other proponents of I-80 tolls are putting Sen. Arlen Specter (D., Pa.) in the hot seat, demanding that he push Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to approve the tolls.

Specter, seeking reelection this year, has declined to support or oppose the tolls, which are very unpopular in northern Pennsylvania.

"I would like to see Specter go see the president and get this done," said Patrick J. Eiding, president of the Philadelphia Council of the AFL-CIO. "It's that important. And he's in a position where he can do that."

Pasquale "Pat" Deon Sr., the Bucks County Republican who is chairman of the SEPTA board and a commissioner of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, said, "Arlen needs to be pushing for it and not dancing around it. He's like a ballerina."

Specter issued a statement yesterday saying, "I believe that tolling I-80 is a state matter."

He added that Senate committees were "working on a $600 billion highway/transit funding bill, and I am fighting for substantial funding from that bill to supplement the $191 million for SEPTA, which I helped get in the stimulus package."

Political considerations have become a key factor for both sides in the battle over I-80 tolls.

Democrats along the I-80 corridor fear they could be voted out of office if the tolls are approved by the Obama administration. Residents of the region say I-80 tolls would cripple the local economy and push heavy trucks onto local roads.

In the Philadelphia area, politicians see a decision for the tolls as a boost for jobs, the economy - and votes.

Eiding, the labor leader, said Specter "is in the asking mode to be endorsed, and this should be weighed heavily in any decision."

At issue is a proposal by the state to make I-80 a toll road for its 311-mile length across northern Pennsylvania, administered by the Turnpike Commission. The Federal Highway Administration has twice denied the state's bid to do so.

A third application was filed Oct. 29, and a decision is expected soon. On March 23, Gov. Rendell and Turnpike Commission attorneys reportedly will meet with LaHood in a final effort to win approval.

Deon said Rendell had put the chances of success at 50-50, "which tends to make me believe we're in trouble."

Without the money from I-80 tolls, the state would have about $450 million less annually for highways, bridges, and mass transit. About $120 million of that was to go to SEPTA.

SEPTA general manager Joseph Casey said yesterday that major projects, such as "smart-card" fare collection and rebuilding the City Hall subway station, would be put on hold if money from I-80 tolls was not forthcoming.

Without the funding, the new fare system "may never happen," Deon said yesterday.

He said 3,600 construction jobs for SEPTA projects would not be created if the projects were deferred for lack of money. Statewide, he said, 36,000 construction jobs would not be created.

Deon said he wanted Specter and the other members of the state's delegation "to get LaHood to approve tolling of I-80, and he's a direct appointment from Obama. U.S. senators can make this thing happen."

But Specter, if he supports tolls, could pay a price in northern Pennsylvania.

"We've been trying to get Sen. Specter's attention for two years, and he's done a pretty good job of ignoring us," said Ed Edwards, leader of the Alliance to Stop I-80 Tolling, a coalition of business, government, and political groups in northern Pennsylvania.

"If the senator wants to weigh in on behalf of his friends in Southeastern Pennsylvania, he's certainly welcome to do that," Edwards said, "but people in this part of the state will pay attention."

Specter's opponent in this year's Democratic primary, U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak (D., Pa.), opposes I-80 tolls.

Sestak said it would be better to tax petroleum companies drilling for natural gas in Marcellus Shale formations and use that money for transportation projects.

Tolling I-80, Sestak said in a statement, "would disproportionately impact the pocketbooks of a certain segment of the state's population - which includes small businesses and the residents along I-80 - and may not receive necessary approval from federal authorities anyway."

Sestak said such a drilling tax, which has been proposed this year by Rendell, could produce more money within five years than tolling I-80.